Even in the modern-day 21st century, it can be a difficult situation for a husband to be in love with a woman who just happens not to be his wife. For the Victorian/Edwardian gentleman, however, especially for one of a highly moral and religious bent, the situation must have been even harder, particularly if that man were a well-known and highly respected public figure. And yet, that is exactly the lot that befell renowned British author H. Rider Haggard. I am only familiar with the bald outlines of the case (after having just completed my 42nd Haggard novel, out of the author’s 58, I really do need to finally pick up his autobiography The Days of My Life, or at least the Cohen or Higgins biography), but it seems that Haggard initially met the love of his life, Lilly Jackson, in the late 1870s while working in the Transvaal. Forbidden by his father to marry the older woman until he’d made something of himself, Haggard returned to England, and Lilly married a well-to-do banker. Later in life, Haggard, now married to a woman named Louisa (Margitson) and a highly successful writer, came to Lilly’s aid when her wealthy husband left her. Haggard bought her a house, paid for her kids’ education, and paid her bills when she contracted syphilis … but despite his deep love for Lilly, remained steadfastly faithful to his wife.
It was this state of torn feelings and platonic love that apparently led Haggard to write so often of heroes tempted by two very different women, most especially in his 1890 novel Beatrice and, as it turns out, in The Way of the Spirit. Written in 1904 with the plotting assistance of Rider’s good friend Rudyard Kipling, this novel — Haggard’s 29th, and thus the precise halfway point of his novelistic output — was ultimately released in March 1906, a month before the San Francisco earthquake, and is perhaps his most forthright statement on the subject of worldly “renunciation.” (Renunciation WAS Haggard’s original title for the novel.)
In the book, the reader makes the acquaintance of a young man named Rupert Ullershaw. Rupert, when we first encounter him, is in the difficult situation of being in a love affair with the wife of his much older cousin, Lord Devene. Facing exposure, the Lady Devene commits suicide, and the young Rupert promises his mother to henceforward “follow the way of the Spirit, not that of the Flesh.” After 11 years of soldiering in India and Egypt, Rupert returns home to England, where he falls in love with and marries his cousin Edith, a woman who is repelled by him but agrees to matrimony only because of Rupert’s career prospects and the peerage, lands and fortune that he will eventually inherit from Lord Devene himself. Edith is actually in love with another of her cousins, the dastardly (and well-named) Dick, who arranges for Rupert to be sent back to Egypt, for a highly dangerous mission, on the very day of his wedding! And while back in that ancient land, Rupert is captured by his old enemy, the Sheik Ibrahim, and is triply mutilated (I will not reveal how exactly, but let’s just say that no Haggard adventurer has ever suffered more than poor Rupert Ullershaw!).
Cared for by Mea, the female leader of a people living in the lost oasis of Tama, he is nursed back to life, returns to England after many months, and is summarily rejected by Edith, who had believed him dead and now finds this mutilated man — who she could just barely tolerate to begin with — utterly impossible to accept. Rupert returns to Mea in the desert, and here the novel starts to make its main point, as the two begin a platonic, loving relationship that lasts for years. Rupert, incredibly enough, remains faithful to his marriage vows and to the unlikable woman who had spurned him, renouncing fleshly pleasures in the hopes of a love ever-lasting beyond the grave! Many readers may begin to roll their collective eyeballs at this point in the tale, but Haggard evidently does seem quite serious in showcasing such a decision’s desirability, even telling us in his preface that “there must be something satisfying and noble in utter Renunciation for Conscience’ sake….” But things reach a truly dramatic pass when Edith travels into the Egyptian desert, after seven years, to claim Rupert as her own….
The Way of the Spirit is a novel that Haggard bibliographer R.D. Mullen has chosen to call “mundane” … not because it is commonplace, but rather because it is largely devoid of any fantasy content. Its “lost race” quotient (Haggard, of course, is the so-called “Father of the Lost-Race Novel”) is fairly minor, too, and the Tama people, living in their 450-square-mile oasis tucked away in the Egyptian desert, are only sketchily described. Still, Mea’s guardian, the aged crone Bakhita, does practice the art of divination and can read omens in the desert sand and winds with a certain degree of accuracy, so the book cannot be said to be completely devoid of fantastic content. The novel also features a bare minimum of action per se, largely confined to the desert fight with Ibrahim’s band and the ghastly torture aftermath, although, as in so many other Haggard titles, a shooting match between our hero and his nemesis does crop up at one point.
Rupert, by the book’s end, living in the desert, helping the sick, and living a life of abstinence, asceticism and renunciation, almost begins to appear saintlike, and the reader, despite his/her disbelief at his superhuman self-control, cannot help but admire him. No wonder Bakhita reflects at one point, “I always thought that these white people are mad, but this Bey is a saint as well.” Truly a man of his times, what would Rupert have made of society’s mores a century down the road, when “open marriages” and what my main man Dan Savage has called “monogamish relationships” have become standard? One can only wonder.
Filled with well-drawn secondary characters and posing an interesting central dilemma, The Way of the Spirit, though largely forgotten today, is a fast-moving, unusual type of Haggard novel, and one that I can surely recommend to all readers. The first edition that I have at home, the Hutchinson & Co. edition from 1906, is unfortunately so musty smelling that it was inducing asthma symptoms in me as I read it, but fortunately, there is a modern edition from Waking Lion Press that proved an adequate substitute, typos and all…